Is anxiety about monkeypox making OCD worse? Here’s how to manage it
After more than two years of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, a new outbreak is dominating our news cycle: monkeypox. Recently declared both a public health emergency by the White House and a global health emergency by the World Health Organization, monkeypox is now sparking concerns around the world, resulting in increased anxiety and an ominous sense of déjà vu.
This escalation in anxiety linked to a new global crisis isn’t unfamiliar: depression and anxiety sharply rose during the early months of COVID-19. On top of navigating an ongoing pandemic and the seemingly constant barrage of both national and worldwide challenges in the news, the rise of monkeypox can be an especially detrimental time for some people struggling with OCD.
Not everyone with the condition will notice a difference, but those that deal with common OCD themes like contamination or harm, or those who have fears related to health concerns, may be noticing a spike in their distress. People with contamination-related OCD symptoms may worry that they will get sick or infect someone else; they may respond by ramping up their hand-washing or cleaning efforts to the point of exhaustion and bodily harm. Those with a fixation on harm are concerned with the possibility that they somehow won’t do enough and will end up infecting someone else. Others who are desperately searching for certainty about the outbreak may respond by excessively seeking new information from the news or the Internet.
These are only a few of the many ways some people with OCD may find their symptoms intensifying during the current outbreak. Adding another layer of distress are the visual symptoms of monkeypox and the primary ways it’s been spreading, making some people particularly fearful of contracting it. This is adding to shame and stigma—two familiar factors that already create anguish for many people with OCD.
Although the risk to the general public is low, it’s hard to estimate where this is going and how long it may go on, as we’ve seen historically with outbreaks—and we know that OCD will take it to the worst-case scenario. So, what can we do in the meantime to deal with OCD and heightened anxiety related to monkeypox?
You may never feel certain enough—and that’s ok
During their most difficult periods, people with OCD can be trapped in seemingly endless cycles of obsessing (e.g., with intrusive thoughts such as “what if I get sick, then get my family sick, and they die!”) and performing compulsions (e.g., searching online about other people’s symptoms repeatedly). Whether it’s about an illness, a relationship, or anything else, this OCD cycle is driven by a feeling that one still hasn’t done enough or is never certain enough.
But, as with many of life’s big challenges, we simply can’t know what really is enough when it comes to an illness outbreak. The constant pursuit of perfection will only wear us out (and maybe make us ill in another way). The very best we can all do is take the advice of official sources; their information might be imperfect, but it’s the best we’ve got.
Resources like the CDC have clear guidelines on protection and preventative strategies. To stay as safe as possible while making sure OCD and anxiety don’t take over, I would recommend that people stick to these guidelines without going above or beyond them. Remember that you’re doing your best, and that’s all you need to do.
Be mindful of where—and how often—you’re searching for updates
Along those lines, misinformation typically runs rampant on social media and other platforms during times of large-scale uncertainty and public health concerns that trigger fear, as we’ve been seeing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Although much smaller in scope than the pandemic, the current monkeypox outbreak is no exception. That’s why seeking out reliable information from credible sources can be a crucial part of dealing with monkeypox anxiety (again, like the CDC, WHO, public health agencies and departments, or your own trusted medical providers). Even some news sources often try to move a little faster than the facts.
It’s important to remember that it’s okay to stay up to date—but not to be consumed—by the news. Constantly checking the news or a social media feed for updates can be a compulsion for people with OCD. Just like Googling, reading every new article and Tweet gives us the illusion that we can get rid of uncertainty and stay one step ahead of the risks involved in this outbreak.
Keep in mind that news outlets want your readership and are financially motivated to constantly throw new information at you. You can consider restricting how much you engage with the news. If you typically read the news in the morning or at night, it may be best to limit your monkeypox news intake to that one period every day. You may choose to scan a limited amount of headlines (again, from reputable sources) at that time to stay informed instead of allowing yourself to spiral into reading every article or website page about the outbreak.
Social media in particular is contributing to raising panic about monkeypox, sometimes spreading rumors and inciting conspiracy theories at an alarming rate. Similar to suggestions on handling news updates, limiting social media engagement—particularly about this topic—or taking a break altogether from these platforms may be useful. Otherwise, we might just be amplifying our anxiety without good reason, unless you’re actually working on an exposure with a licensed OCD specialist.
Know who to talk to about your anxiety and fears
A situation like this is the perfect storm for anxious minds: There is seemingly an increase in the number of cases every day with more countries affected. News and social media outlets throw alarmist headlines at us; the scarier the better, because more clicks means more money. With every update, we only feel worse.
Friends and loved ones can be helpful, but they may not know how to listen without bringing in their own fears. They might also inadvertently encourage any compulsive behaviors that they now see as reasonable responses (such as avoidance) simply because people are being highly conscientious. With these complications in mind, we could all benefit from professional guidance during these times.
The good news is that there’s a highly effective therapy —exposure and response prevention (ERP)—that can help people with OCD who are struggling with heightened anxiety due to monkeypox or other OCD fears. When done with a licensed therapist who is specialty-trained, ERP is the most reliable way to significantly decrease the amount of distress caused by OCD.
Trying to “fight” our thoughts directly is a losing battle, so ERP works by helping people recognize and resist their physical or mental compulsions (like replaying memories where you fear you may have infected someone until they feel “resolved”). This, in turn, gradually teaches us that we can tolerate even our most distressing thoughts: we don’t need to do anything about them after all.
Although this might sound simple, it involves careful planning and constant adjustment, so ERP is most effective when practiced with a therapist who has received specialized training. An OCD-trained therapist knows how to spot compulsions and tease them apart from obsessions: Is this a reasonable fear about monkeypox, or another manifestation of contamination obsessions?
These observations are the building blocks of the personalized treatment program you will follow under their guidance. Their expertise is in teaching you how to manage your OCD and make positive changes in all areas of your life, redirecting all the energy you might otherwise have spent on OCD.
At NOCD, all of our therapists receive training in ERP and ongoing guidance from our clinical leadership team. A NOCD therapist will teach you the skills needed to begin your OCD recovery journey and will support you every step of the way. They will guide you in taking small steps to reach your goals and help you reduce your OCD symptoms. Between sessions, you’ll be welcomed into our supportive peer community, with 24/7 access to personalized self-management tools built by people who have been through OCD and successfully recovered using ERP.
Our therapy is 100% online and done through live face-to-face video sessions, so anyone can access convenient, effective, and affordable treatment for OCD virtually, both inside and outside the U.S. We provide affordable treatment and accept many insurance plans to help make treatment even more affordable.
To learn more about working with a licensed, specialty-trained NOCD therapist, book a free 15-minute call with our team today.
Dr. McGrath is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. He is a member of the Scientific and Clinical Advisory Boards of the International OCD Foundation, a Fellow of the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, and the author of "The OCD Answer Book" and "Don't Try Harder, Try Different."
NOCD Therapists specialize in treating OCDView all therapists
Licensed Therapist, MA
I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.
Licensed Therapist, LCMHC
When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.
Licensed Therapy, LMHC
I've been a licensed counselor since 2013, having run my private practice with a steady influx of OCD cases for several years. Out of all the approaches to OCD treatment that I've used, I find Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy to be the most effective. ERP goes beyond other methods and tackles the problem head-on. By using ERP in our sessions, you can look forward to better days ahead.